In 1739, Michael Coutanche bought land in Bath. Today, he is credited with building the impressive Palmer-Marsh House around 1751. At least a decade before though, a smaller building stood on the same lot. The archaeological remains of this structure provide us with some of the best clues we have about how Bath’s buildings looked in the first half of the 18th century.
In 1960, an excavation in the north yard of the Palmer-Marsh House uncovered traces of a 27''x17" structure built in the 1730s. A brick chimney stood at the north end of this frame building, which rested on brick underpinnings. The building was probably a story or a story and a half tall. Beneath the southern half lay a cellar made of stones that had arrived as ballast in the holds of sailing ships that docked at Bath.
Coutanche may have lived in this structure in the decade before the construction of the Palmer-Marsh House. Pieces of window glass etched with the letters “Michael Cout…” were found during the excavation. Despite how close it lies to the newer dwelling, the earlier structure remained standing for at least a decade after the completion of the Palmer-Marsh House.
It appears from archaeological and documentary evidence that subsequently it may have been used as one of several stores Coutanche operated on this property. A trader in naval stores (turpentine, pitch, resin, etc.), Coutanche regularly shipped barrels of tar by sea from Bath to Liverpool. Archaeologists found much tar on the brick floor of the cellar, possibly from a broken or forgotten barrel intended for the English trade. An entrance into the cellar along the building’s north wall allowed easy access to Main Street and the nearby wharves on Bath Creek for loading and unloading naval supplies and other goods.
By the time the Sauthier Map of Bath was completed in 1769, the 1730s structure was no longer standing. Brick rubble and wood timbers found on the cellar floor suggest that the building was torn down and the chimney pushed into the open cellar hole. Household trash, including fragments of a fine black earthenware teapot decorated with gold gilt, a jaw harp, broken wine bottles, turkey and pig bones, and clay tobacco pipes, was tossed in on top of the building debris. A three-foot thick layer of clay, which probably came out of a hole dug for of a nearby cellar, had been used to complete the filling of the cellar.
Why the building was destroyed remains a mystery. Most likely this demolition occurred shortly after Robert Palmer purchased the property in 1764. Palmer, wealthy and well-connected politically, may have decided to update the house and grounds. Ideas of symmetry and order were popular in the American colonies at this time and the oddly-angled alignment of the 1730s structure to the street and the Palmer-Marsh House may have doomed it.
The above story was taken from "Bath: The First Town in North Carolina" by Alan D. Watson, with Eva C. (Bea) Latham and Patricia M. Samford (2005), N.C. Office of Archives and History. To order this book, go to N.C. Historical Publications.
To learn more about the history of Bath, archaeology students from the Anthropology Department at East Carolina University have excavated various areas at Bonner's Point, hoping to uncover useful clues and artifacts. This lot is a logical place to begin an archaeological exploration as John Lawson, Bath's founder, chose this area to build his home shortly after the town's incorporation in 1705.
The area known today as Bonner's Point was most certainly the home of Indian tribes long before Lawson ended his 1,000 mile journey on the shores of Old Town and Adam's Creeks. On September 27, 1706, the first recorded sales of lots in the town took place here. Lawson was among the first thirteen purchasers and took possession of probably the most desired spot in the town.
The only description of what may have been on that property is in the December 1706 lease of that area made to Hannah Smith, the mother of Lawson's child. Lots 5 and 6 were described as being within a fence and located on "front street in Bath town." She was also given rights to "all houses, edifices, buildings, storehouses, easements and commodities thereunto belonging or appertaining to . . ." With his knowledge and love of plants and trees, Lawson probably had several orchards and gardens. He does write of cultivating fox-grapes, a peach tree, and a strawberry bed. Our only definitive trace to this time is the remnants of a stone chimney believed to be from his home that still stand on the site.
The lots were apparently inherited by his daughter Isabella Lawson and later sold in 1729 by her and her husband John Chilley. During the colonial period, the property was transferred numerous times. In the mid-1700s the property was owned by a Henry Crofton and then sold to Edward Hocut. During this time, the building on this property seems to have been much improved; possibly Lawson's home had been torn down and a new structure built.
In 1830, Joseph Bonner purchased lots 5 and 6, as well as the adjoining lots 4 and 7. He paid very little for the property; therefore if any structures were still standing, they must have been in very poor shape. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, this area was owned by the Bonner family and is known as Bonner's Point today.
Joseph Bonner built the house in town as a summer home for his family. This allowed the family a place to get away from the plantation and enjoy the waterfront breeze and view as well as participate in the small town's social activities. It is also very likely with the water access, that Bonner may have loaded and shipped turpentine, rosin, and other naval stores from this area. Underwater exploration at Bonner's Point did find traces of some of these items and possibly the remains of a large warehouse-type structure. By the end of the Civil War, the naval stores business, as well as the economy, had gone down so the Bonners sold their plantation just out of town and moved to their home in Bath permanently.
The property changed hands after the death of the last Bonner heir and was bought by Dr. Joseph Norman in 1942. In 1949, Norman died and in 1960, through a gift from the Oscar Smith Foundation, the Bath Historical Society was able to buy the properties. On May 5, 1962, the home was opened as a tourist site and in 1964 was turned over to the State of North Carolina as a State Historic Site.
The goal of recent archaeological excavations and research of this site is to learn more about the early days of settlement here, whether the period when the first Indian tribes settled here hundreds of years ago or the birth and development of the oldest town in North Carolina 300 years ago. In addition, historians hope this study will help flesh out a picture of how people have lived and survived in this area through times of need as well as prosperity.
An archaeology field school, cosponsored by Historic Bath and the Anthropology Department at East Carolina University, has taken place each summer at this site for the past several years. It is open and free of charge to the public Mondays through Fridays, from 9 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., weather permitting. Visitors are encouraged to stop in the Historic Bath Visitor Center at 207 Carteret Street for a map to the site and additional information.
Watch this site for more information on the upcoming 2009 field school activities and plans.